Agnes Hand, 1934
Agnes Hand stands in the center of a crowd of characters trying to blend, but blending is something Agnes can’t do. From the top of her henna-colored hair to her purple dyed shoes, Agnes is a cacophony of color.
Today, however, she’s muted.
Agnes has had some bad news. Actually, she feels gutted, as though all her soft parts are in the scrap pan, waiting for the dog. If she could, she’d relieve herself, but that would mean walking through the crowd.
I know everything that’s happened this morning and how it will end (she’ll live), but I’ve decided to let Agnes tell her own story. I’ve had my share of heartbreak and know the treachery of friends. Agnes needs to tell her own story. Agnes needs to pick herself up again.
Agnes works at First Mills Bank; she’s the teller at Window Number One. She’s always early because it’s a short walk from the house she shares with her mother. Olivia, her oldest sister, always barges in. Agnes thinks that since Olivia is now married with a huge home in Harshbarger Heights, she should stay there, but Olivia says she has a right to come and go in the house she was raised in. Besides, Agnes should watch herself because all those Garrett men were cheats.
Olivia was referring to Woody Garrett, Agnes’s beau. The sisters haven’t spoken since.
This morning, Olivia is taking their mother to the doctor, and Agnes has left even earlier, only stopping to snip off a Patience rose. She tries to fit the rose between her left ear and the thick of her hair, but Trixie, the rat terrier, keeps nipping her hem. Agnes kicks out: Trixie also tears hose.
She peels off a thorn, and the stem slides easily behind her ear —always a flower or a bright scarf. Agnes is proud of her hair. Without pins or clips, it falls past her waist. Her middle sister, Helen, helps her apply the Zenia mix every six weeks. Helen has been “brightening” her hair since Agnes was thirteen years old and threatened to drop out of school over algebra. The Zenia application had been a bribe, but it worked. She’s been strawberry blonde ever since.
Agnes is so early that she wonders if she’ll have to wait for Otis with the keys, but the janitor is there, ready with his cheeky salute. Otis was a navy man, and she salutes back. She is, however, surprised to see the office door open. Paul Valentine, the bank president — red nosed and red faced— has a hard time getting up in the morning.
When Coraline Valentine’s head pops out, however, Agnes feels her heart bump. Coraline is her friend for life, and all because Paul Valentine wore his shoes on the wrong feet.
Here’s how it happened:
One chilly spring morning, Paul was limping and moaning inside his office. Agnes heard everything because Window Number One is a few steps from the office door, separated by a thin wall. When he began to curse, Agnes stepped in.
“Oh, Aggie,” he shook his head. “I’m in a bad way.”
“What’s wrong?” The room smelled of aftershave and his usual “medicine,” but it wasn’t strong.
“My feet are killing me.”
The bank president had raised his pant cuffs, and at once, she recognized the shoes. A pair just like them was currently on display in the window of Walden’s Clothing and Dry Goods. The summer shoes had come in and this particular pair, two-tone oxfords, had been placed on a shut suitcase, surrounded by shorts and socks. A pair of sunglasses clips was nearby.
She and Woody had passed the store on their return from the riverbank, and Woody had stopped to stare. He’d sighed, and because she was heavy with love, his longing hurt her. “Someday,” she told him, squeezing his arm. “You’ll look so fine.”
On Paul Valentine’s feet, however, they didn’t look fine. They seemed about to fly apart. Plus, his ankles were swollen. It was on the tip of her tongue to asked about his gout when she realized the problem.
He’d put his shoes on the wrong feet!
Her next step required care. Paul Valentine, the mildest of men, could get touchy when he made mistakes.
“Mother says she wishes we’d go back to the day of the shoe cobblers,” Agnes knelt and began taking them off as though undressing a toddler. She didn’t have to tell him what was wrong. Paul sighed in relief. “Everything looks the same these days.”
“Viola is a wise woman,” he said, then, “You’re a good girl, Aggie.”
And a devious one, for the minute she left his office, she headed straight for the telephone kept for general use in the back room and dialed his wife, Coraline. Agnes told her what happened and the first thing Coraline said was, “Can he drive?”
Agnes paused. Of course, it might happen to anyone, but he’d had his shoes on the wrong feet since nine o’clock– and the smell, while slight, was definitely discernible. Another thing. He’d been alert when the shoes were on, doubtless from pain, but the second she took them off, he fell back like a punctured balloon.
“Maybe,” she said.
“Maybe means no,” replied Cora and then proceeded to tell her what to do.
With wide eyes, Agnes listened to the most ingenious plan she’d ever heard. Coraline lived in a “in case of emergency” mode. Agnes was to return to the office and check on Paul. She was to tell him his face was splotchy and the vein in his temple was big. No, use the word protruding, Coraline corrected, Say it’s the one on the right. Agnes should add that while she wasn’t an expert on blood pressure, his might be high. Paul was an expert on blood pressure. He would rush home to use the Baunmanometer Pressure Monitor he’d ordered from Physician’s Supply in Cincinnati.
“It’s attached to his arm like a vine,” Coraline explained. “Alongside his chair with the spittoon.”
It sounded good, but duplicity was not Agnes’s strongpoint. “What if he won’t go?”
“Tell him I’m not home.”
“But you are!”
“I won’t be. I’m going to the club house to check on the garden show. Olivia will be there. Tell him that’s how you know.”
Agnes was speechless. “This is between us,” Coraline added.
“Of course!” That came straight from Agnes’s heart. She’d spent her life keeping things from her oldest sister, but now she had another reason. She doesn’t like the way Olivia treats Coraline. Once the two had been the best of friends, but now she treats her like trash. Coraline the Supine, she’d once called her, actually getting up from her chair and rolling on the kitchen floor. Mother had sternly told her to quit acting the fool. Agnes added that she’d always known Olivia was a fool and walked out.
To this day, Agnes doesn’t know what supine means, but it must have something to do with rolling in money. Olivia always talks about how much her husband Walter makes selling laminated glass windshields in Clovington, so much they’d soon be richer than the Valentines. Coraline Cooper was lucky when she wangled Paul into marrying her, she’d say, as though Coraline had held a gun to his head. I hope she remembers that.
Agnes graduated from high school last year, and had applied at the bank like everyone else. Coraline could have put her papers in the trash, but she didn’t and already Agnes is head teller. This provokes Olivia to no end.
Coraline the Supine. The words float in her head, though she wished they’d go away.
“Find Otis and tell him what’s happened.” Coraline was burning up the line. “He’ll know what to do. Tell him I’ll slip him a five.”
Her plan worked. The only hitch was that Otis had refused the money, but that was understandable. No one talked about Paul’s “medicine” because he’d floated mortgages to all sorts of people who couldn’t get them elsewhere. Otis was one of them.
Agnes hopes Woody Garrett will be one as well, although not for a house. It’s the brick building on the corner of Chestnut and Church where he hopes to open a barber shop. They didn’t need a house. After she’d accepted his proposal, they’d decided to live with Mother Viola because a woman her mother’s age shouldn’t be left alone. Woody is a country boy who lives on Killgore Creek with his folks and knows the importance of family. Plus, he’s got plenty of ambition. He’s attended the Tri-State Barber College in Covington for the last six months, and now he’s close to the finish. Last night he’d phoned to tell her he’d passed the written exam.
“When will you be home?” she asked. Hunger was in her voice. Yes, hunger was an appropriate word now.
“As soon as I get a decent haircut. That’s the last part of the test,” he replied, making a smacking sound into the phone. She could hear a woman’s laughter.
“Don’t mind them,” he’s said. “It’s one of the girls.”
Agnes doesn’t mind it. She knows the girls who live on the third floor of the boarding house are a nuisance. Woody says they’re always in the sitting room, waiting to grab the phone.
She’d waited for him to tell her that he loved her, but he said goodbye.
Agnes knows Woody loves her. She believes that what happened between them on the riverbank has left an indelible mark on their souls. They’re linked forever.
There are lots of quiet spots along the riverbank, but Woody took her to one that was sacred. There, he got down on one knee and proposed. Agnes had agreed and then he’d taken her clothes off with an adeptness that was surprising for a country boy, which is what Woody always calls himself. Raw. Green. Fresh off the farm. Finally, she decided that he’d known what to do simply by virtue of his sex. He’s a man. Men always know what to do when a woman is willing. Still, even her mother had trouble with her new Tite Pantie Girdle.
She’d stood before him with her hair down, covering her front and back. He’d lifted the drape of her hair over each shoulder. Then, he stepped back.
The moon was full and she was clearly illumined.
The hard barks of laughter sounded like gunshots.
Woody had cackled, “Why, Agnes, you sly puss!”
Too late! She knew what he’d seen. Still, Agnes covered her hair down there.
“Now, Aggie, don’t take on,” Seeing her reaction, Woody had folded her tightly in his arms. “You’re my girl, Aggie. You’re my dear girl.”
He’d kissed her and kept on kissing her, until a vague need became a hunger, and she’d been hungering ever since. She couldn’t allow herself to dwell on it, or she’d scream. She wants to scream now, but she can’t because Coraline is motioning impatiently from the office.
“Agnes, a minute.”
Excerpt from That’s Not Love!, a collection of short stories by the same name, copyright Joan Spilman